Ricky Donnell "Freeway Rick" Ross (born January 26, 1960) is an American author and convicted drug trafficker best known for the drug empire he established in Los Angeles, California, in the early to mid 1980s. He was sentenced to life in prison, though the sentence was shortened on appeal and Ross was released in 2009.
Ross has said that when he first saw crack cocaine as a teenager in 1979, he did not immediately believe it was a drug because it looked different from other drugs he had seen.
The nickname Freeway came from Ross owning properties along the Los Angeles Harbor Freeway and living next to Interstate 110. According to an October 2013 Esquire magazine article, "Between 1982 and 1989, federal prosecutors estimated, Ross bought and resold several metric tons of cocaine," with Ross' gross revenue claimed to be more than $900 million (equivalent to $2700 million in 2017) and profits of almost $300 million ($900 million in 2017). During the height of his drug dealing, Ross was said to have sold "$3 million in one day." According to the Oakland Tribune, "In the course of his rise, prosecutors estimate that Ross exported several tons of cocaine to New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and made more than $600 million between 1983 and 1984."
In 1996, Ross was sentenced to life imprisonment under the three-strikes law after being convicted for purchasing more than 100 kilograms of cocaine from a federal agent in a sting operation. Later that year, a series of articles by journalist Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News revealed a connection between one of Ross's cocaine sources, Danilo Blandón, and the CIA as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. Having learned to read at the age of 28, during his first stint in prison, Ross spent much of his time behind bars studying the law. He eventually discovered a legal loophole that would lead to his release. Ross's case was brought to a federal court of appeals which found that the three-strikes law had been erroneously applied and reduced his sentence to 20 years. He was released from Federal Correctional Institution, Texarkana on September 29, 2009.
Ross was arrested in October 2015 on suspicion of possessing cash related to the sales of illegal drugs when police discovered $100,000 in Ross's possession during a traffic stop. Ross later alleged that he had been racially profiled and stated that he was carrying a large amount of cash for the purchase of a home.
Ross began selling cocaine after his illiteracy prevented his earning a tennis scholarship for college. He began spending time with an upholstery teacher at a Los Angeles community college who revealed he dealt cocaine and offered Ross a small amount to sell. Ross used his profit to purchase more cocaine to sell, expanding his small operation. Ross eventually began to ask for quantities to sell that exceeded what the teacher was willing to procure, so he turned to find a new dealer.
The teacher referred Ross to his supplier, Ivan Arguellas, who offered to keep Ross supplied. Arguellas was able to provide larger quantities at a better price, and Ross quickly went from dealing in grams of cocaine to dealing in ounces. About eight months after becoming Ross's supplier, Arguellas was shot in the spine, resulting in months of hospitalization that forced him out of the cocaine business. His brother-in-law Henry Corrales took over the business, but was not enthusiastic about the trade and had failed to make any connections of his own to suppliers.
A Nicaraguan exile and cocaine distributor named Oscar Danilo Blandón was acquainted with Arguellas and Corrales, and although he did not know him personally, was impressed with the amount of cocaine that Ross was moving. Blandón offered to supply cocaine to Corrales to sell to Ross, for a fifty-fifty split of the profit. Eventually, Corrales lost his appetite for the cocaine business and retired, at which point Ross became a direct customer of Blandón.
Through his connection to Blandón, and Blandón's supplier Norwin Meneses Cantarero, Ross was able to purchase Nicaraguan cocaine at significantly reduced rates. Ross began distributing cocaine at $10,000 per kilo less than the average street price, distributing it to the Bloods and Crips street gangs. By 1982, Ross had received his moniker of "Freeway Ricky" and claimed to have sold up to US$3 million worth of cocaine per day, purchasing 455 kilos of cocaine a week.
Ross initially invested most of his profits in houses and businesses, because he feared his mother would catch on to what he was doing if he started spending lavishly on himself. In a jailhouse interview with reporter Gary Webb, Ross said, "We were hiding our money from our mothers." He invested a portion of the proceeds from his drug dealing activities in Anita Baker's first album.
With thousands of employees, Ross has said he operated drug sales not only in Los Angeles but in places across the country including St. Louis, New Orleans, Texas, Kansas City, Oklahoma, Indiana, Cincinnati, North Carolina, South Carolina, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Seattle. He has said that his most lucrative sales came from the Ohio area. He made similar claims in a 1996 PBS interview. According to the Oakland Tribune, "In the course of his rise, prosecutors estimate that Ross exported several tons of cocaine to New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and made more than $600 million in the process." Adjusting for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, this becomes more than a billion dollars.
Much of Ross' success at evading law enforcement was due to his ring's possession of police scanners and voice scramblers. Following one drug bust, a Los Angeles County sheriff remarked that Ross' men had "better equipment than we have."
According to the October 2013 Esquire article, “Between 1982 and 1989, federal prosecutors estimated, Ross bought and resold several metric tons of cocaine. In 1980 dollars, his gross earnings were said to be in excess of $900 million – with a profit of nearly $300 million. Converted roughly to present-day dollars: 2.5 billion gross and $850 million in profit. As his distribution empire grew to include forty-two cities, the price he paid per kilo of powder cocaine dropped from as much as $60,000 to as low as $10,000. ”
Ross' capture was facilitated by his main source, drug lord Oscar Danilo Blandón, who set up Ross. Blandón had close ties with the Contras, and had met with Contra leader Enrique Bermúdez on several occasions. Blandón was the link between the CIA and Contras during the Iran-Contra affair. Gary Webb interviewed Ross several times before breaking the story in 1996. Ross claims that the reason he was unfairly tried initially was because of his involvement in the scandal. Blandón received a 24-month sentence for his drug trafficking charges, and following his release, was hired by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) where he was salaried at US$42,000. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was ordered to grant Blandón a green card, despite the criminal convictions, to allow him to work for the DEA.
On June 18, 2010, Ross sued rapper Rick Ross (real name William Leonard Roberts II) for using his name, filing a copyright infringement lawsuit against Ross in a California Federal Court. Jay-Z had been called to testify in the lawsuit, as he was CEO of Def Jam when Ross was signed to the label. Ross sought $10 million in compensation in the lawsuit.
After the lawsuit was dismissed on July 3, 2010, the album Teflon Don was released as scheduled on July 20, 2010. A federal judge ruled that the case should be refiled in California state court because it fell under California state law. Ross refiled the case with the State of California and the federal case is on appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The state case was filed in 2011 in California.
Ross refiled in Los Angeles Superior Court with publicity rights claims. Trial was set for early May 2012. The case was dismissed by a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
The memoir, Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography, was released at a book launch with author Scott at the Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles on June 17, 2014 to a standing-room only crowd.
KCET TV in its review wrote, "(The book) is fascinating for its unsentimental, inside look at his career on the streets of South Central, which started for Ross with car theft and quickly shifted to drugs and the big time."
The memoir was nominated for ForeWord Review's IndiFab Best Book of the Year Award 2014 in the true crime category. In June 2015, winners were announced, with the book named as a Foreword Reviews' 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Finalist, True Crime.
Ross was a key figure in filmmaker Kevin Booth's documentary American Drug War: The Last White Hope. The second episode of the first season of BET's American Gangster documentary series was focused on the story of Ricky Ross and his connection to the Iran-Contral scandal.
Ross was a guest interview on VH1's Planet Rock History of Crack and Hip Hop Documentary.
Ross is featured in the 2015 two-part documentary Freeway: Crack in the System, which details various levels of the drug trade, the Iran-Contra scandal, and mass incarceration. In 2016, the documentary was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism: Long Form.